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Public Citizen v. National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

ELR Citation: 18 ELR 21145
Nos. Nos. 85-1745 et al., 848 F.2d 256/(D.C. Cir., 06/07/1988)

The court holds that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA's) corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard for 1986 and its decision not to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the standard were not arbitrary or capricious. Plaintiff citizen groups, municipalities, and the state of California challenge the NHTSA's decision to issue a CAFE standard for model year 1986 that is lower than the maximum standard specified in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA). The court first holds that all plaintiffs but one have standing to challenge the CAFE standard. The court's previous decision in Center for Auto Safety v. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 17 ELR 20039, panel decision reinstated by evenly divided en banc court, 18 ELR 21118, in which the identical citizen group plaintiffs challenged the NHTSA's fuel economy standard for light trucks, is controlling here. In that case, the court held that three of the organizations had plausibly alleged redressable injury traceable to the agency's action, since their members were interested in purchasing the most fuel-efficient vehicles possible, and low CAFE standards diminish the options available to them. Moreover, the court in that case held that EPCA's broad judicial review provision removes judicial authority to create prudential barriers to standing, and that one of the organizational plaintiffs failed to satisfy the injury-in-fact test. Since there is no difference between the two cases with respect to the standing issue, the same citizen group plaintiffs that had standing in the prior case also have standing here. Although the municipal and state plaintiffs in the present case did not participate in Center for Auto Safety, they have standing on the same basis as that of the other plaintiffs; they purchase large numbers of passenger vehicles. The court also holds that those plaintiffs who have standing to challenge the CAFE standard also have standing under the National Environmental Policy Act to challenge the agency's decision not to prepare an EIS. Although the 1986 model year has passed and some environmental consequences of the NHTSA's action are no longer redressable, EPCA's civil penalties are modified by "carryback" and "carryforward" provisions that could alter manufacturers' incentives to produce fuel-efficient vehicles in future model years.

The court next holds that the NHTSA's decision to issue a CAFE standard for 1986 lower than the statutory maximum was not arbitrary or capricious. The agency's decision was based on the conclusion that because of shifts in consumer demand the economic effects of the maximum standard would be severe. Consideration of economic practicability is specifically authorized by statute. The agency did not fail to consider the nation's need to conserve energy as required by the statute, but rather viewed the potential economic hardships of the higher standard as more important. EPCA simply lists the factors that the agency must consider in setting the CAFE standards; in the absence of a more explicit balancing formula, the NHTSA's decision cannot be said to violate the statutory mandate.

The court holds that the NHTSA's decision not to prepare an EIS was not arbitrary or capricious. The agency did not improperly rely on the Environmental Protection Agency's judgment that the revised CAFE standard would not cause violations of the mobile source emission standards. Although the court notes that the question is close, it was not necessary for NHTSA to consider possible emission increases within the legal limits. The agency made the decision under time pressure, and asserts that in future years it could consider the cumulative effect of the 1986 rule. The court holds that the agency's decision that annual increases in fuel consumption would not be significant enough to trigger the EIS requirement under the terms of the agency's own rules was rational.

The dissent does not regard the decision in Center for Auto Safety as controlling, and would hold that plaintiffs do not satisfy the injury-in-fact test for standing.

Counsel for Petitioners
Alan B. Morrison, Clarence M. Ditlow III
Public Citizen Litigation Group
2000 P St. NW, Washington DC 20036
(202) 785-3704

Counsel for Respondents
Mark B. Stern
Civil Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-5534

Enid Rubenstein, Eileen T. Leahy, J. Edward Clancy
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 7th St. NW, Washington DC 20590
(202) 366-5263

Before: MIKVA, RUTH B. GINSBURG, and SILBERMAN, Circuit Judges.